The Infallible Word of God.
The basis for a Religion of Peace.
Those are two of the claims that Muslims will continually make about the Quran. Speak to most muslims in the West, and they will repeat these claims to you – at least thats my experience as a secondary RE Teacher in a Muslim-majority school. If you judged the Quran on the basis of who my students are, you may be led to the same conclusion – they are generally polite, peaceful and very friendly. I say this to emphasise the fact that what I am about to explain is not from someone blinded by egoistic, right-wing fascism but someone who teaches and interacts with Muslims and Islam on a day-to-day basis with respect and dignity.
One particular verse from the Quran that I encounter repeatedly is a sentence from Quran Chapter 5 Verse 32 which states that ‘whoever saves a life it is as if he has saved the life of all mankind.’ This verse regularly appears in the textbooks that I use to teach GCSE Islam as a scriptural grounding for Muslim support of certain global peaceful initiatives such as equal human rights, non-violence and democracy (see here its use on BBC bitesize for defending peaceful solutions to conflict – https://www.bbc.com/education/guides/zfnv87h/revision/8). On the surface, this verse definitely implies an equal value of all; indicating that if one life is lost then it as if all lives are lost because all lives have equal significance. This definitely leads into the principle of equal human rights and justice for ‘all mankind,’ as human rights are designed to ‘save’ lives and preserve dignity. Nevertheless, it is easy to take a line out of the context of any book and make it say what we want it, and it works for the purpose of bitesize quotes for school textbooks.
However, I wonder, would we draw the same conclusion if we read the sentence within its wider context? Firstly, within its immediate literary context of Chapter 5 in the Quran, and then within the historical context of when it was first penned (or should I say ‘revealed’).
Lets consider verse 32 in the literary context of Chapter 5 of the Quran. However, before we embark on this endeavour, it is necessary to point out that exegeting Quranic verses in their own literary context is very problematic because the Quran does not follow a set literary structure, like most books. The vast majority of verses do not have relevant context around them and only really make sense when read alone; thus making them very easy to ‘nit-pick.’ Fortunately, this verse in question does have a relevant context which can definitely aid our understanding.
Firstly, the preceding verses indicate that this specific passage is a revelation regarding the Jews. Verse 32 comes at the end of a 5 verse section which explains and discusses the implications of the story of Cain and Abel (Adam and Eve’s first two sons of whom the former killed the latter). Primary to that, Chapter 5 also discusses the story of Moses, and instructions Allah gave to him. See here the Quran text in full, from verse 27-32:
“And recite to them the story of Adam’s two sons, in truth, when they both offered a sacrifice [to Allah ], and it was accepted from one of them but was not accepted from the other. Said [the latter], “I will surely kill you.” Said [the former], “Indeed, Allah only accepts from the righteous [who fear Him]. If you should raise your hand against me to kill me – I shall not raise my hand against you to kill you. Indeed, I fear Allah, Lord of the worlds. Indeed I want you to obtain [thereby] my sin and your sin so you will be among the companions of the Fire. And that is the recompense of wrongdoers.”And his soul permitted to him the murder of his brother, so he killed him and became among the losers. Then Allah sent a crow searching in the ground to show him how to hide the disgrace of his brother. He said, “O woe to me! Have I failed to be like this crow and hide the body of my brother?” And he became of the regretful.Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.”
Thus, it is clear from reading the whole section of the Quran, that this particular is found within a set of instructions directed at the Jews. As the first sentence in verse 32 states ‘we decreed upon the Children of Israel’ thus implying the instructions are for them alone. This contrasts the BBC bitesize view, and implied view of the attached image, that the sentence in question is an explanation of Islamic views on peace and humanity. Unless, of course, Muslims claim the identity of ‘Children of Israel’ for themselves and, if this was the case, would have to revoke their well-publicised theological identity as ‘Children of Ishmael.’ This would have huge consequences for the religion of Islam because this would imply that Israel was the chosen nation of God, and the line through Abraham -Isaac- Jacob/Israel was the line through which God’s promise of salvation and redemption flowed. This would render their belief that Abraham’s son ‘Ishmael’ was the rightful heir to the promises of God false, and therefore topple one of the founding linchpins of the religion.
Moreover, the idea of equal human rights and peaceful solutions to conflict isn’t exactly forthcoming in the verses directly following verse 32 in Chapter 5 either. However, before we read the following 3 verses it is necessary to point out that these verses have a different subject matter and perhaps were ‘revealed’ to Muhammed for a different occasion, so may not historically follow verses 27-32. However, as the Quran is the infallible, unchanging word of God – surely it would make no difference to read the next two verses anyway. So here is Chapter 5, verse 33-34:
“Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment, Except for those who return [repenting] before you apprehend them. And know that Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”
As is evident above the following verse to the one that says ‘whoever saves the life of all is as if they saved the lives of all mankind’ discusses the ‘penalty’ for anyone who disagrees with Islam or Muhammed. It clarifies that anyone who disagrees with God or Muhammed should be mutilated or killed using extreme violence, and that great suffering will be inflicted on them in the next. The principles of equal opportunity or rights for all peoples are nowhere to be seen, in fact the opposite is encouraged. Anyone who does not follow Islam is an enemy and thus to be hated, brutalised and destroyed. This idea is not just limited to these two verses, however extreme they may seem, but also links with the mainstream muslim belief that ultimate, lasting world peace will not occur unless the whole world is governed by Islamic rule. This may sound familiar to anyone versed in ISIS’ teachings, but most muslims will generally agree that only Islamic rule will bring true peace to the world (http://www.khilafah.com/clarifying-the-meaning-of-dar-al-kufr-a-dar-al-islam/). Thus, if we are to take the single sentence from verse 32 and use it to proclaim human rights, peace and diversity, we could take the very next verse and use it to proclaim the exact opposite: violent war until all enemies are vanquished or converted by any means necessary.
In short, one is led to ask the question – which is true Islam – saving lives or killing lives? Whichever way you answer the question leaves the other verse invalid and useless, and thus if one verse of the so-called ‘infallible, unchanging word of God’ is rendered false by another verse – then surely the book is not infallible.
Thus we could conclude that if you read the single sentence from Quran 5:32 within its literary context, then one of three conclusions is appropriate to draw: A – the verse has nothing to do with Islam but is God’s instructions to the Jews based on the Cain and Abel narrative; B – if it is relating to Muslims then this renders their version of the Abraham story false and then one of their key religious cornerstones implodes; C – the peaceful tones of v. 32 are cancelled out by the violent nature of v. 33-34 and thus either verse is meaningless and therefore the Quran is not ‘infallible.’
Yet, might the historical context save the verse?
As a book, the Quran itself is said to have been ‘revealed’ in the early 7th century and compiled by Muhammed’s followers and eventually put together by Uthman in the mid 7th century. The story goes that the Quran was directly revealed to Muhammed through the Angel Gabriel and is the direct word of God, so thus proves all other scriptures fallible and subordinate. Does this hold up in the face of historical evidence, based on this verse?
As we have seen from closer inspection of verses 27-32 from Chapter 5, the Quran is here referring to the Cain and Abel story from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Although the Cain and Abel story does appear in the Bible, it is not illustrated in same way so thus this must be a new, correct revelation of the event only given to Muhammed, right? Moreover, the Quran was revealed in the early to mid 7th century and compiled a few decades later, and as it is the infallible word of God straight from the angel’s mouth it couldn’t possibly copy from another divine book, right?
Apart from the Biblical version of the Cain and Abel story, the narrative also occurs in the Jewish apocrypha. As we have already noted, the Biblical account does not match up with the narrative from the Quran and thus does not pose a threat to the Islamic claim that the Quran is infallible and unchanged. However, in Jewish apocrypha, which developed around 200-300 BC a slightly different version of the story of Cain and Abel is evident (seen here in the Jewish Encyclopaedia http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/759-adam-book-of). What is interesting is that a Jewish commentary on this narrative, written in the Mishnah Sanhedrin (which developed around 100-200 AD) provides a startling sentence: (https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Sanhedrin.4.5?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en)
“For thus we find in regard to Cain, who killed his brother, “The bloods of your brother scream out!” (Genesis 4:10) – the verse does not say blood of your brother, but bloods of your brother, because it was his blood and also the blood of his future offspring [screaming out]! [Another explanation of the verse: for his blood was splattered over the trees and rocks [there was more than one pool of blood]. [The judges’ speech continues] “It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”
This Jewish commentary discusses the murder of Abel by his brother and then explains how God responds to the first murder, and the last part indicates a commentary or further explanation of God’s response. The commentator is trying to explain that this story does imply a sense of equality across all humanity, in that if one person is killed it is as if everyone is killed because everyone has equal value and significance. The same is true for the opposite – one person’s life is worth saving because he or she is as valuable and important as any other. What is startling about this passage is not its explanation, but the fact that it is a verbatim copy of the text from Quran 5:32. The sentences are exactly the same! (see above to confirm!) The fact that they are identical strongly suggests that one copied the other. Due to the historical timeline of the two books, the Mishnah Sanhedrin compiled around 100-200 AD and the Quran written, at its earliest, in the mid-late 7th century, it seems highly unlikely that the Mishnah Sanhedrin coped the Quran! Nevertheless if the Quran had copied from an element of the Jewish Talmud this would not be a problem if it was open about it and declared its origins, however the opposite is in fact claimed.
Muslims claim that the Quran is the infallible Word of Allah, unchanged, unadulterated, and superior to all other scriptures. But could that still be true if there is strong evidence it plagiarised at least one verse from the Jewish scriptures and commentaries? If the Quran was revealed directly to Muhammed and then written down by Muhammed’s followers there should be nothing of its kind around – it should be a divine original; its contents scribed by heaven alone. But here, in the Jewish commentaries written hundreds of years before Muhammed was born, we found someone has already written the same verse that appears verbatim in the Quran. If the Quran is the infallible Word of God, 100% of it must be original and unchanged, if one verse is copied from another scripture then the claim that the entire book is infallible is flawed. So here we see one verse – Quran 5:32, a popular verse chosen for its peaceful rhetoric and human rights links, might, in fact be copied from a Jewish scriptural commentary written hundreds of year previous. As they say, a chain is only as strong at its weakest link and this evidence suggests a very weak link in the Quran claim to be the authoritative, unbeatable Word of God – revealed only to Muhammed.
If this is the case, as the historical evidence indicates, then we could draw a number of conclusions: A – the Quranic verse is a copy of the ancient Jewish commentary and therefore the Quran can no longer claim to be the authoritative, flawless word of God; B – it is just coincidence that the verse revealed to Muhammed in the Arabian desert was exactly the same as a section of the Jewish commentary on exactly the same ancient Judeo-Christian story; C – it was revealed in exactly the same way because God had already revealed the truth of this story to the ancient Jewish commentators they appear a copy of each other and in this way the Quran maintains its divine origin. But if this was the case, Muslims would have to admit that the Jews must have therefore been God’s chosen people and again this renders their claim that God’s promises of salvation flowed through Ishmael (not Isaac) redundant. Either way, whichever conclusion we draw from this staggering piece of historical evidence, the Islamic religion loses credibility, reliability or consistency.
As we have evaluated, the use of this one sentence from Quran 5:32 to promote equality, human rights and non-violent peace can be proven false through its immediate literary and historical context.
As such – we must ask the question – is the Quran really the infallible, unchanged, divinely revealed Word of God?
Or is it something else?